How to find the perfect Scottish island for your holiday

Robin McKelvie
·6-min read
skye - Getty
skye - Getty

The Scottish Government have just surprised everyone – not least those who had already cancelled their upcoming island breaks – by announcing the isles will re-open to tourism alongside the mainland after all on April 26. Cross border travel too will re-open. It seems the desperation to get tourism going again has trumped Covid-concerns, as case numbers drop sharply and vaccination levels soar.

Scotland’s treasure trove of over 800 islands – just under 100 inhabited – beckons, but where to start? I’ve spent the last 20 years as a travel writer scouring the isles and I’m often asked which is “best”. I answer that it’s more a question of which is best for you. Are you a foodie, an ornithologist or do you just crave a deserted beach? Handily the Hebrides also share remarkable walking, scenery and eye-popping sunsets, plus a genuinely friendly island welcome.

Skye

Best for foodies

Yes, too many motorhomes will bundle across the Skye Bridge this year, but you’ll forget about them tucking into Michael Smith’s Michelin-starred wonders overlooking the water at Loch Bay in sleepy Stein. Smith’s old haunt, the legendary The Three Chimneys, may have lost its star, but mercurial young chef Scott Davies is busting a creative gut to get it back in this brilliantly reborn croft. You can stay over too, in calm contemporary rooms with loch views. In Skye’s south Isabella Macdonald is continuing her mother’s remarkable legacy – as hotelier, chef and food writer – at Kinloch Lodge with new head chef Jordan Webb in the kitchen. For simpler fare the Oyster Shed dishes up boat-fresh seafood; handily the Talisker whisky distillery shares the same village.

  • Stay: Indulge in the old world luxury of Kinloch Lodge, a former hunting lodge with hill and loch views, plus timeless, velouté-smooth service.

  • Eat: All of the above. If only one, it has to be the Michelin treat of Loch Bay.

Coll

Best for beaches

coll - Getty
coll - Getty

This was the hardest one to pick, with Harris a close second. Coll wins as its west coast is basically one giant necklace of beaches. I’ve heard – and written – there are 23, but on my last visit a whisky-fuelled Collaich insisted there were more; his equally adamant friend, fewer. Kick off with a beach brace – enjoy the wide sweep of Crossapol and its huge sand dunes, before easing over the wildflower-clad machair to Feall. I’ll never forget my girls whooping with delight on spotting the perfect sands, then going off the scale when seals swam right next to us. My favourite Coll game is asking someone in the bar at the Coll Hotel for their own “secret beach” – it has opened up a few crackers over the years. Lazily cycling between the beaches with a picnic you’ll forget what century it is, never mind day.

  • Stay: The recently revamped Coll Hotel is the place; all sea views and beaming smiles from the close-knit family team, the Oliphants.

  • Eat: The Coll Hotel’s dining room is a delight with homemade linguine starring alongside plump Coll lobster. A rich seafood bounty arrives daily; Coll lamb too.

Islay

Best for whisky

islay - Getty
islay - Getty

It has to be Islay, which just brought its distillery-count up to a whopping nine. Sail in and you’ll see Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin en route. Start with this trio of whitewashed Victorian dames as a new walkway and cycle path connects them; Islay E-Wheels rent e-bikes. Newbie Ardnahoe is the stuff of Grand Designs, with floor to ceiling windows sweeping out to the water. Try their whisky food pairings for lunch. Near neighbour Bunnahabhain does superb tours too, while fellow neighbour Caol Ila finds its way into the famous Johnnie Walker blends. Smallest of the lot is Kilchoman, crafted around an old farm and made with obvious love. They started beach tastings on the wide sands of Machir Bay during the pandemic – a glorious experience. Bruichladdich charms too using traditional production methods long lost to modern rivals. Lastly Bowmore sits handily at the heart of the eponymous island capital. Production helps heat the local swimming pool so savour your dram with a clear conscience.

  • Stay: Staying at the Port Charlotte Hotel feels like living in a postcard, with its whitewashed façade and period features. It oozes character.

  • Eat: Your tastebuds won’t forget the tennis ball-sized scallops and local lobster mac ‘n’ cheese at the Islay Hotel.

Mull

Best for wildlife

mull - Getty
mull - Getty

Why bother jetting abroad to view wildlife when Mull offers a world of fauna? Mull Sealife Surveys hunts all manner of cetaceans armed with Canons and Nikons rather than harpoons. You’ve a good chance of spotting whales – minkes most regularly, even humpbacks and orcas – plus dolphins and porpoises. You’ll know if you spot a sea eagle as you’ll probably mistake it for a glider. On land red deer roam the glens and you’ll see them on hill walks (Ben More is the only island Munro outside Skye). Golden eagles tend to steal attention from the bountiful local buzzards – to really get a feel for Mull join Mull Wildlife Tours. At the end of a day wildlife spotting enjoy a wee dram by the shore in the dappled light of the gloaming – an ideal time for spotting otters.

  • Stay: The Mishnish in the island capital of Portree is a vibrant induction into island life; the pub is celebrated for its Scottish ales and live music sessions.

  • Eat: Café Fish in Tobermory are on first name terms with their ultra-local suppliers. Devouring the seafood platter on the terrace on a sunny day is feasting with the Gods.

Arran

Best for it all

arran - Getty
arran - Getty

People who ask me where they should head if they can only visit one island seem disappointed when I instantly answer “Arran”, without debating a list of world-class isles. This Firth of Clyde oasis more than earns the “Scotland in Miniature” epithets: one half firmly north of the Highland Boundary Fault, soaring with craggy peaks, stag-packed glens and rugged castles; the gentler south soothing with empty, sandy beaches, cute wee whitewashed villages and the rich farmland that conjures up the award-winning Arran cheese. Arran sports two distilleries (a brace of breweries too), plus a great butcher, baker, ice cream maker, and even a chocolatier. It’s the only island with all of Scotland’s wildlife Big Five (red deer, seals, otters, red squirrels and golden eagles). You can just cycle round in a day. Don’t: this is the sort of life-affirming, spirit-soaring island we all need right now and you really won’t want to leave.

  • Stay: The Auchrannie is the only real resort in the islands, with a brace of swimming pools, myriad dining and accommodation options, and leisure facilities for dreich days.

  • Eat: Watch the gannets diving for dinner while you tuck into baseball sized scallops caught in the waters right outside the Kilbrannan Restaurant. Their Arran lamb is stellar too.